An Interpretation of Classic Elegance

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.12, 2020


An Interpretation of Classic Elegance



Liu Chengji


Wang Guowei put forward the category of “classic elegance(guya)” in the context of Western aesthetics’ “beauty” and “sublimity.” However, for over a hundred years this category attracted much less attention from scholars than his theory of artistic conception or theory of realm. Historically, the concept of classic elegance has had a continuous influence on Chinese aesthetics. Especially since the mid-Tang, it has been increasingly dominant in the areas of poetry, painting and calligraphy, and ancient artifacts. The Tang admiration for classic elegance was mainly based on the attempts of scholars of literature and the classics to rebuild Confucian dominance in politics and culture. The Song advocacy of it started from supplementing the history of the classics with epigraphy, and this trend was strengthened through the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. The Qing concept of classic elegance could not resist the late Ming and early Qing turn from the school of the mind to the school of statecraft (learning of practical use to society). Subsequently the plain learning of the Qianlong-Jiaqing reigns and the epigraphic learning of the Jiaqing-Daoguang reigns took on an aesthetic character. In the late Qing, the study of epigraphy was further generalized to the study of ancient artifacts, with knowledge and appreciation of artifacts illuminating one another. The vicissitudes of the movement to return to the past endowed time and historical experience with aesthetic values that made the recalling and reappearance of the Chinese cultural tradition a major aesthetic issue. Classic elegance thus became an important concept for understanding the aesthetic spirit of China’s mid-and late-antiquity.